More fiber will help US wireless crunch

Kevin Martin encouraged offloading traffic to Wi-Fi networks in order to make more efficient use of cellular networks

Laying more fiber is one way to make more efficient use of wireless spectrum, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said on Wednesday.

Speaking at a Mobile Monday event in Seattle, he was repeating an idea presented by researcher David Clark from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at an FCC panel last year.

"A significant amount of mobile broadband activity actually occurs indoors," Martin said. "That should be gotten off-net quicker."

For instance, he said he might sit on the couch in his house and look something up online using his cell phone, which doesn't have Wi-Fi. Rather than use that valuable cellular spectrum, he could instead free up that bandwidth for mobile customers by using his Wi-Fi network, either from a capable phone or his laptop. Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum and bridges a short gap between a wired connection in the wall and a user.

He implied that regulations could help encourage the use of Wi-Fi and wireline networks when possible. "We should make sure we're thinking about ways, that we have policies that try to make sure we utilize spectrum in the most effective way possible," he said. "And that includes getting things off-net."

He also discussed other ways to make more efficient use of spectrum and praised some of the ideas that the current FCC has said will be in its forthcoming National Broadband Plan, to be unveiled on March 17.

Technological advancements can help make more efficient use of spectrum, he said. That's happened in the past. For instance, some spectrum that has been allocated for unlicensed use such as Wi-Fi wasn't initially thought to be useable for such services, he said. "The benefits of technology will let us use more," he said.

Martin's excited that the FCC said it plans to open up 500MHz worth of spectrum in the coming years. Currently, operators are using a total of 450MHz, so the plan will more than double the current uses, he noted.

Martin said he didn't have any details of the FCC's plan to potentially use wireless to deliver free broadband. On Tuesday, the FCC said that the broadband plan would include an effort to consider using wireless broadband to deliver free or very low-cost broadband to underserved people, although it did not explain how.

He expects that the FCC will use several methods to do that. The government could provide direct subsidies to consumers through vouchers, similar to the food stamp program, he said. The current low-income fund is a similar idea but for voice services.

It can also require carriers to provide services to people, similar to the universal service program, he said. In addition, the FCC could require spectrum winners to deliver some level of free service to people. "In the end, we'll probably see a mix of all these," Martin said.

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